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No such things as distractions.

I attended the first half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry,” yesterday.

He started with the premise that the process of writing is a series of negotiations between the will of the poet and the waywardness of the poem, and that poets are the kind of people who can’t talk about just one thing at a time.

Here were his tips for how to engender the frame of mind while writing which allows you to surprise yourself and let the poem take an unexpected turn:

  1. Think of the poem’s subject as being entirely provisional. Writing a poem is the opposite of writing an essay; you want to turn away from your original thesis and enter new ground.
  2. A little subject matter goes a long way.
  3. Think of a poem as having its own intelligence, and listen to that. If you really listen, the poem might show signs of boredom, so to keep it happy, you gave to come up with something new.
  4. Distractions are clues. If you find yourself being distracted by something as you write, put it in the poem.
  5. Think of the poem as having a present, as opposed to being a recounting of past experience. For the reader, the poem is taking place as it’s read.
  6. Be willing to dispense with fidelity to what really happened. Take advantage of the imaginative freedom that poetry offers. Sometimes you have to make things up to get at the truth.

His recommended reading:

  1. Richard Hugo “The Triggering Town
  2. Shakespeare “That time of year thou may’st in me behold” (discussion of which led to a lengthy aside about sonnets being essentially having something to say, and having something to say about what you had to say, that is, suffering a moment of self-consciousness in those final two lines)
  3. Matthew Arnold “Dover Beach
  4. Billy Collins “The Trouble With Poetry” and “Poetry, Pleasure and the Hedonistic Reader” (I can find neither of these online; sorry.)
  5. Ruth L. Schwartz “The Swan in Edgewater Park” (if you read only one of his suggestions, read this one.)
  6. Stephen Dobyns new book about poetry (which he quoted from, on enjambment, essentially saying unusual enjambments should have a purpose), presumably Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, though I haven’t read it so I can’t confirm that.
  7. Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays” (also)

Edited to add: summary of second half.

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4 Comments

  1. Peg wrote:

    Awesome writeup — printing it out to pursue later. (And congrats on all the acceptances!)

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  2. This is very helpful, Joanne. I have been deep in novel revision but think I need some sort of writing break – cross-training – and may attend to my poetry.
    I often think of you and how we had a plan, with notebooks ruled and divided into journals we hoped to breach.
    Glad you are having what appears to be a vivid and continuous narrative life!

    Sunday, September 18, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  3. Jan!! I was reading some Neruda the other day and was reminded of your sunlit kitchen. Good idea to cross train! I hope this helps. I found it clarified some stuff I kind of already knew but didn’t have 100% articulated.

    Sunday, September 18, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Mum wrote:

    Just came across this while Twitter dropping on my peeps. Wonderful condensed lecture. Even I (or perhaps especially I)whose writing experience has been a combination of the verb ‘to mentor’ and the question ‘how’ found it useful in explaining the creative process. Glad that you are in such a stimulating place.
    Love, Mum

    Monday, September 19, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

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  1. […] Today was the second half of Vanderbilt’s Saturday University class with Billy Collins, “Under the Hood: The Mechanics of Poetry.” (I wrote about the first half here.) […]